sustainability: a hard word, an even harder task

I remember nodding as if I knew what her words meant, though I didn’t have a clue.  I mean I knew I could piece together a somewhat educated guess — and much preferred to do just that.  My only other option was to demonstrate to my future wife my ignorance concerning development work and missions.  After all, I was at the time a missionary in China, and this was only our second or third conversation….  I had no idea we would be married two years later.  Nor would I ever have imagined I would one day find myself developing a program for sustainable development in rural Tanzania.

Sustainable development.  Those were the words she used, and she spoke about it with such passion.  Only her passion for God was greater.  She would soon (and still every day) teach me much about God, and about sustainable development.*

My favorite (and probably the most accepted and often quoted) definition of these now familiar words comes from Our Common Future, the final report of the Brundtland Commission in 1987:


Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.


As I’ve been thinking through a sustainable format for agriculture development in Geita, I’ve scribbled down a lot of thoughts, some about development, some about agriculture, still others about Christianity and its impact on a community.  I’ve decided to post a few of those thoughts today, though my opinions are not in any way complete, organized, or necessarily even correct.  I suppose I’m hoping for some feedback to help me work through some of these ideas in my mind.

Recent focus on development that is sustainable and reproducible has brought about a greater emphasis on education-based work. While this is a great start, I still have many concerns:

  • I don’t know that our churches are doing a good job of teaching the importance of empowering the poor to solve their own problems, in contrast with simply dumping money on their situations.
  • Oftentimes, even when this education is present, Christians still prefer to give money, because:
    • it allows us to keep a “safe” distance from the poor.  I don’t get dirty when I write a check.  And it’s not nearly as uncomfortable either.
    • it’s much easier to heap money on a problem than it is to provide education and healthier assistance.  Sustainability requires relationship, and relationship requires time.
    • it’s “sexier” to contribute to the poor in Africa or the hurting in India than to become involved where I am.
    • giving money provides a sort of instant gratification — I’ve done my duty and can now move back into a more selfish (and normal) mode of living.
    • we can mask our own selfish desires, or at least kill two birds with one stone.  “You mean by buying this album… or red ipod… or bag of fair trade coffee… I can help the poor and hurting?  Well, I suppose it’s only my Christian duty to sacrifice for the HIV-positive and get something I really want in return.”
  • I fear that much of what we’re calling sustainable and reproducible isn’t really that.  True development can’t teach a new system (drip irrigation) or supply a new technology (peanut shellers) only.  That’s a great start, because people are able to improve their own lives with new practices.  But ten years later when the weather patterns or cash crops have changed, the locals will be waiting on yet another NGO to come in and teach them yet another farming system that will work for a time.  Or when the shellers break, who will repair them?  Where will the parts come from?  Or will the villagers simply go back to shelling peanuts by hand?   The locals are still dependent in these situations, though admittedly less so.
  • Best development will do at least two things: 1) give locals access to the knowledge behind new systems, helping them to “develop” said systems “on their own,” and 2) encourage (and even facilitate) the formation of groups in which nationals can process new information and continue working together to solve future problems.

I would argue the best Christian evangelism does the same two things:

  1. Gives people access to God’s word, teaching them how to study it, so they can “develop on their own” (under the Holy Spirit’s guidance) an understanding of God and his will for their lives — with less (or no) reliance on a missionary’s teaching.
  2. Encourages (and even facilitates) the formation of groups who will together study the Bible, process and interpret new information, and continue working to solve future “problems” (whether they be problems of sin, poverty, or making new disciples).

Our team is struggling to develop and implement sustainable and reproducible practices in areas of both development and evangelism.  We seek to be a mission that is holistic, addressing every aspect of life.  We desire to meet needs today, but not at the expense of a future generation’s ability to meet its own needs.  What advice would you have for us?

*  Christie majored in English.  And these days, I have no problems asking her what words mean when I’m reading books that are too difficult for me.  She’s so smart…



Filed under development, mission

3 responses to “sustainability: a hard word, an even harder task

  1. randy morgan

    no advice, i’m afraid, but i couldn’t agree more with your conclusions, brett.

    as a church planter in suburban america, i applied your definition of “sustainable development” to our current methods and found us sadly lacking. the things that seem to be working (a slick building with “superstar” teaching simulcast on video) is a quick fix that does not address the problems of 1.) the disenfranchised and 2.) the next generation.

    one phrase you wrote really resonated with me: “Christians still prefer to give money, because…it allows us to keep a ‘safe’ distance from the poor. I don’t get dirty when I write a check.”

    if we don’t raise up a generation of leaders who are willing to “get their hands dirty,” then we are lost.

  2. Brett,

    I have held onto the email about this blog article for weeks now. From that time I wanted to respond, but did not seem to have the time to formulate my thoughts. At this moment, I definitely do not have the time, but I am compelled to write something.

    My last two weeks were spent in Zambia teaching Church Planting Movements (CPM) at the Mapepe Bible College to 37 students. Coaching them to identify Persons of Peace and to then coach them to facilitate Discovery Bible Studies (DBS) designed to reach households was a real joy. But the highlight of my time there was spent dialoguing with Thomas Simubali, a Zambian who went through David Watson’s trainging in Livingston and is developing sustainable farming practices as access ministries for Zambian villages. He is already doing things I only find others talking about. He is also learning about best practices that can work there and is exploring how to introduce these to more people.

    Hopefully I can pass on some of these things to you soon and there can be some synergy. I am praying God will bless us with multiple pilot projects in diverse regions of Africa which can be useful for tapping into foundation money that is earmarked for humanitarian aid.

    I am thankful for your passion for this issue. Let’s keep praying for breakthroughs that further the spread of the kingdom.

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